Reactions to 2011–2012 cross-sectoral agreement

On 19 January, Belgium’s social partners finally reached a cross-sectoral agreement after bargaining since November. The main issues discussed were wage increases, welfare benefits and harmonising conditions for the country’s blue-collar and white-collar workers. However, to be valid, it has to be approved by all sectoral organisations involved in the negotiations and there is still some union dissent. Without full agreement, the government will have to make the final decision.

Main topics tackled

A new interprofessional agreement (IPA) is always welcomed as an important moment in the socioeconomic life of Belgium, especially in the context of the global economic crisis (BE1010011I).

In November 2010, the ‘Group of Ten’ social partners – representatives of employers and trade unions – started bargaining on essential issues such as wage increases, employment status and welfare benefits.

The Group of Ten is made up of the organisations listed below.

On the employer side:

  • two representatives of the Belgian Federation of Employers (FEB/VBO);
  • one representative from the Organisation of the Self-Employed (UNIZO);
  • a member of the Union of Small Firms and Traders (UCM);
  • a representative of the Federation of Belgian Farmers (BB).

On the union side:

  • two representatives of the Belgian General Federation of Labour (FGTB/ABVV);
  • two from the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC/ACV);
  • one representative of the Federation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB/ACLVB).

Agreeing margin for wage increases

In Belgium, the margin for wage increases is directly linked to inflation by a mechanism called automatic indexation. It allows wages to track the cost of living to ensure stable purchasing power.

Following the IPA, which covers 2011 and 2012, the margin should reach 4.2%. This increase comes for the most part from inflation (3.9%) in line with estimates from the Central Economic Council (CCE/CRB). The remaining 0.3% reflects the result of the social partners’ bargaining.

Harmonising conditions for blue-collar and white-collar workers

Harmonising the employment status of blue-collar and white-collar workers is also an important issue and has been emphasised by the current economic and social situation. This issue has not been fully resolved, partly because its evolution concerns only new employment contracts. However, the social partners plan a step-by-step harmonisation for the next IPA.

Among the biggest differences between blue-collar and white-collar workers are conditions of dismissal, including the length of notice periods (BE1012011I). The recent agreement suggests harmonising them by increasing the length of notice given to blue-collar workers and decreasing it for white-collar workers.

Other issues include guaranteed incomes, holiday benefits and temporary employment measures.

For blue-collar workers, the first day of illness, also called a missed day, is not paid at all, whereas it is paid in full for white-collar workers. The agreement addresses this discrepancy by applying the same treatment to blue-collar workers.

Regarding holiday benefits, union and employer representatives have reached an agreement on improving the situation for blue-collar workers, with the ultimate goal of developing one single calculation method for all workers.

Lastly, the applicability of certain measures put in place during the crisis to deal with the impact on employment will be extended. The possibility to opt for temporary employment for white-collar workers will be extended permanently. As for blue-collar workers, this option was extended to white-collar workers as part of the anti-crisis measures. In 2016, there will be one single measure for all workers. Until then, temporary employment crisis measures for white-collar workers are upheld. Other anti-crisis measures are also extended.

Differing reactions to the agreement

Given the issues and the clear positions of the social partners, it is not really a surprise that they have expressed contrasting points of view about the IPA.

Employers

On the employer side UNIZO and UCM pointed to progress on the harmonisation of employment status but also regretted that the automatic indexation of wages remains in force. This will, in their view, undermine the competitiveness of Belgian companies.

FEB/VBO, however, declared itself pleased with this IPA, even if it is unfinished, because in the context of the crisis it was important to give markets a clear signal.

In the end, all employer representative organisations approved the agreement.

Trade unions

The union positions are much more diverse. Maintaining automatic indexation was unanimously recognised as a good point, although the agreed wage increase margin was widely regarded as insufficient. The first steps towards employment status harmonisation were also considered unacceptable by the Belgian Union of White-Collar Staff, Technicians and Managers (SETCa/BBTK) and the National Federation of White-Collar Workers (CNE/LBC). Those unions consider the proposals as hampering the unions’ gains.

This project has not been given unanimous support from the workers’ representative organisations either. It has been rejected by FGTB/ABVV and CGSLB/ACLVB.

Future of the IPA

If the agreement is rejected by only one of the negotiating organisations, it becomes null and void. In that case, the government has to regain control of the agreement and make a final decision without further negotiation. FEB/VBO wants the government to legislate on the agreement as it has been negotiated, while unions have already planned strike action.

Commentary

In the current political situation, with a provisional government in place, it is probably not the best environment for a well-balanced outcome. The government is still working on this case.

Simon Erkes, Institute for Labour Studies (IST), Université catholique de Louvain (UCL)

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